University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee

Paula Orth

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Jul 11, 2009 
Latch’s Affinity for Biological Sciences Grew in Forests

From the Spring 2009 edition of Collegium

latch_n Emily Latch teaches Conservation Genetics and Ecological Genetics.

Emily Latch, assistant professor, Biological Sciences, said she was raised “from the natural forests of Maine to a forest of subdivisions” in Penn- sylvania. It was during her childhood, hiking in the Pine Tree State’s forests, that she first developed an affinity for biology.

Earning a BS in Genetic Engineering from Cedar Crest College, Allentown, Penn., she said, “I knew I liked the laboratory aspect of my work, but wanted something more. Many of my fellow graduates went to work for pharmaceutical companies, but that wasn’t for me.”

During her graduate work, she earned a PhD in Population Genetics from Purdue University, Lafayette, Ind., and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoological Park, Washington, D.C., before coming to UWM.

Along the way, she became more interested in applying genetics to conservation, because “it combines what I like about the lab and what I really care about,” she explained. Her research has focused on a variety of wildlife, from mule deer to turkeys, from desert tortoises to bighorn sheep.

Discussing her work, she said, “We research the genetics of a particular population to see if there is sufficient variability in the species so they can adapt to changes in the environment.”

Researching the animals is essential for wildlife management, she pointed out. “We ask such questions as, ‘Are populations in need of conservation? Do we need to manage them separately?’” Early in the 20th century, the numbers of wildlife species declined drastically, and it was necessary to repopulate areas. However, during World War II, when the human population was busy with other things at home and abroad, the wildlife populations expanded.

Contrary to some opinions, Latch emphasized, hunters are essential in helping with and maintaining wildlife. “They are proponents of conservation to preserve habitat for the species they care about,” she said. “During my graduate work, I opened my eyes to the attitudes of others, such as hunters, and realized there was a lot to be learned.”

In the lab, Latch explores wildlife genetics by studying samples such as feathers, feces, hair and eggs of a species. She attempts to isolate DNA to look at the genetic variability between populations and between species. “Molecular Ecology is still a relatively young field,” she said, “where we use molecular tools to answer ecological questions.”

Also, she added, “I really like teaching this. To get students interested in science, to think about things in a scientific way, is great. Besides, it’s self-interest: every time you teach, you learn something.”

Latch plans to continue some of her work on mule deer in the Western United States, but also is interested in studying species right here in Wisconsin. She currently is working to develop a project focusing on badgers for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The DNR can help by telling her what they’ve seen, where the badgers are and how many are in a given area.

“Wisconsin and UWM have great resources,” she emphasized. “I can interact with people who do similar research and work, and I want to be in a place where the natural resources are accessible.”

However, when she worked in Washington, she lived in the vicinity of the National Zoo and would wake up to the sounds of gibbons and roaring lions. 

 Most likely, that won’t happen on Milwaukee’s east side.